MARAIS / SAINTE-COLOMBE: The Greatest Masterworks
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Sainte-Colombe (died c.1700)
Marin Marais (1656 - 1728)
"Those who have heard excellent violists and good concertsof viols know that there is nothing more delightful, after good voices, than the movingstrokes of the bow that accompany all the ornaments that are done on the fingerboard, butbecause it is no less difficult to describe their elegance than it is to describe that ofa perfect orator, it is necessary to hear them in order to understand them."
In 1636 when the French theorist Marin Mersenne wrote thisparagraph in his "Livre Quatri?¿me des Instruments" the viol was a relativenewcomer to musical life in France. Yet Mersenne's comments give a clear insight into why,fifty years later, it was to be the most highly revered of all instruments. French taste,the elusive bon go??t so often referred to by writers at the time, respondedimmediately to its unique blend of elegance, delicacy and, above all, an expressivenessakin to the human voice.
In England during these early decades of the seventeenthcentury the viol was already enjoying enormous popularity amongst the nobility and wouldcontinue to do so until the reign of Charles II when the violin family found favour withthe king. The instrument initially found favour in England because of its physicalresemblance to that most beloved of court instruments, the lute, the tuning of its sixstrings and the presence of frets on the fingerboard making it easy for lutenists to playyet having the greater expressive potential that a bow provides. Similarly, in France, thefirst virtuosi of the viol, Andre Maugars and Nicholas Hotman, were both lutenists andMersenne again describes them in Harmonicum Libri (1635) as;
"...men who are very accomplished in this art."Maugars, interestingly, studied in England for a time, whilst of Hotman another importanttheorist, Jean Rousseau, says;
"The tenderness of his playing came from the beautiful bowstrokes which he animated and sweetened so fittingly and with so much skill that hecharmed all those who heard him, and it is this which began to give perfection to theviol, and to make it preferred over all other instruments." (Traite de la Viole.
This subtle art of bowing, the mastery of which held the key totruly expressive playing, was the most precious skill which Hotman passed on to his pupil,Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (died c.1700), that most elusive of French viol players.
Contemporary writers give us some tempting glimpses into his life:
"He gave concerts at his home where two of his daughtersplayed, one on the treble viol and the other on the bass, thus forming a consort of threeviols with their father, which was much enjoyed. ..." (Titon du Tillet 'Le ParnasseFranyais'. Paris 1732)
Yetsuch descriptions are little more than fleeting images whichcan only paint a sketchy picture of a man for whom we do not even have a Christian name.
What we do know, however, is significant in charting the continued development of the violin France. Sainte-Colombe added a seventh string to the traditionally six-stringedinstrument to extend its range a fourth lower and then introduced a metal winding for thegut bass strings, to make a brighter and more resonant sound. He also took standards ofperformance to new levels of excellence, his ability as a player being the subject of manywritten tributes paid at the time by theorists and musicians alike. His legacy to modernviolists, however, are his Concerts a deux violesesgales, a volume of over sixty pieces for two bass viols, two of which can beheard on this disc. These are written in a style which is clearly inherited from a lutetradition, most obviously in the extensive use of chordal passages. HoweverSainte-Colombe's gift for creating marvellously emotive melodies in combination with oftensumptuous and sometimes unexpected harmonies sets them apart from the work of hispredecessors and makes them a delight to listen to.
Quite apart from the time spent in perfecting his technique onthe viol and committing his compositions to paper, Sainte-Colombe was also a teacherdedicated to sharing his ideas with a group of talented students as one of them describesin this account; "His worth and his knowledge have made him sufficiently known, andif he has developed some pupils who surpass the ordinary, they are indebted for it to hisunusual kindness and to the particular care he has taken in teaching them; and they mustacknowledge frankly that they owe to him that fine hand position, those beautifulcadences, and finally that manner of drawing forth harmony, sometimes tender, sometimesbrilliant, which agreeably surprises the ear."
(Danoville 'L'Artde Toucherle Dessuset Bassede Viole'. Paris,1687)
One of Sainte-Colombe's pupils not only 'surpassed theordinary' but was to become one of the greatest performer-composers of the time. Indeed,at a time when Louis XlV was the 'Sun King' of France, Marin Marais (1656-1728) was theundisputed ruler of a by then flourishing kingdom of French viol players.
"The empire of the viol was founded and powerfullyestablished by 'fe pere Marais' "
(Hubert le Blanc 'Defense de la Basse de Viole'. Amsterdam,1740)
His enormous achievement in reaching such exalted status wasdue not only to his talent and the quality of Sainte-Colombe's teaching but also to theage in which he was living. Titon du Tillet tells us that after six months of tuition thegreat teacher professed that he had nothing left to show Marais and that, indeed, hispupil was able 'to surpass him'. This gives a clear insight into the level of Marais'innate genius on the viol, a genius which Louis XIV was quick to recognise and keen tonurture. Thus the young prodigy, at the age of twenty-three accepted the position of'Ordinaire de la Chambre du Roi', a post which required him to serve at court for sixmonths in each year, leaving the rest of his time free to compose, teach and to giveprivate concerts in the homes of the French nobility. The royal appointment not only gaveMarais instant credibility, for the kings fine artistic judgement was seen by all asthe arbiter of taste, but allowed him to work with the finest composers and performers ofhis day. Indeed, he was, it seems, a soloist in the opera orchestra and was thereforeclosely associated with the great Jean-Baptiste Lully who gave him composition lessons andallowed him on occasion to beat time. An accolade indeed!
Amongst Marais' pupils, as well as talented young professionalssuch as his son, Roland. there were many members of the nobility for whom learning theviol was deemed one of the most desirable of accomplishments. It was for these 'amateur'players that he wrote his five volumes of 'Pieces de Violes', published between 1686 and1725. These publications are made up of several large suites, some of them containing upto thirty stylised dance movements, preludes, and character pieces. These would never havebeen performed in their entirety; each suite contains pieces of varying difficulty and theperformer would simply have chosen the movements best suited to his or her abilities. Manyof Marais' students must have reached a very high standard, for in the introduction to hisfourth book of 1717 he mentions that some of them have been complaining that his music istoo easy! For them he wrote the Suite dun Go??t Etranger, not a dancesuite so much as a collection of thirty-three individual pieces which are, as the composerpro